American democracy has never been stronger.
That may seem like an incredibly naïve thing to say, given these tough times. Unemployment rates are high, foreclosures remain a pressing concern for many communities, and real wages continue to stagnate for most Americans. Conservatives are rightly worried about the budget deficit and the long-term impact it will have on our economy. Liberals are rightly concerned with rising income inequality and the pervasive influence of corporate money on politics. And everyone is worried about the long-term health and viability of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- not to mention the potential fallout from the ongoing European fiscal crisis.
So what reason do we possibly have to be optimistic about American democracy right now?
Because Americans have weathered these hard times by doing exactly what our Founding Fathers hoped we would do: We've spoken up and expressed our outrage. We've gone to Tea Parties. We've Occupied Wall Street. We've Rallied to Restore Sanity and donated to Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. And in less than two months tens of millions of us will go to the polls. In other words, democracy has the unique ability to take in criticism, protest, and dissatisfaction and turn those negative feelings towards positive behavior.
People will get upset at their leaders and their governments; it's bound to happen, no matter what form of government we have or who is in charge. With most forms of government this kind of anger can quickly turn into riots, revolution, and chaos. This kind of political turmoil can last for months or even years; just look at the ongoing violence and instability across the Middle East sparked by the Arab Spring. Dissatisfaction with the regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Syria has led to violence and civil war. Egypt has had the easiest road of those three, and yet violence has already killed hundreds.
As Americans, we don't express our dissatisfaction with the government in violent, chaotic, and disruptive ways because we don't have to. There are better ways for us to be heard.
In fact, the most important thing that we've done to strengthen American democracy is that we've voted the bums out. We've been rightly angry at many of our elected officials, and we've expressed that anger by firing them. We took Congress away from the Republicans in 2006, gave the White House to the Democratic Party in 2008, gave the House of Representatives back to the Republicans in 2010, and heading into the 2012 elections incumbents from both parties are worried about losing their jobs. We have that voice, we have that power, and we're not afraid to use it.
It's all too easy to be pessimistic about the state of our democracy right now. In particular, the amount of money being dumped into the campaigns this political season seems gargantuan. Negative advertising, paid for by Super PACs run by friends and former advisers to the candidates, has flooded the airwaves. The entire process stinks of corruption, even if it is technically legal.
As disturbing as those trends are, however, to focus entirely on the pervasive and likely corrosive influence of money is missing the point. After all, as Winston Churchill once said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Yes, wealthy individuals and corporations wield more influence over the election of our political leaders than any of us would like. But the situation would only be worse if we chose our leaders any other way.
Besides, that money only matters because we, as voters, let it matter. Ultimately, the power in any democracy rests in our hands as voters. The wealthy can buy airtime to trash politicians they don't approve of and to try to give voters a favorable impression of politicians that they do approve of. But any advertisement is only successful because people buy what's being sold. Clever and expensive advertising did not cause people to buy all their pet supplies through Pets.com in the late 1990s, and it has yet to convince kids to stop trying illegal drugs. Political advertising can't force us to vote for candidates; at the end of the day, we get to make that choice for ourselves.
The health of our democracy doesn't rest on the state of the economy, or the approval ratings of Congress, or even on the amount of money being dumped into political advertising. It rests on the basic fairness of a system that gives everyone a voice and gives equal weight to everybody's vote.